…as long as they don’t materially misrepresent the performer or the performance. They may be icky, but they aren’t unethical. This is in ethical contrast with the Ethics Alarms position on zombie performers in films, as examined here several times, most recently upon the unveiling of zombie James Dean.
The issue has arisen because a holograph of Whitney Houston, mercifully in a form before her physical and vocal decline due to drug abuse, is touring the country. Here’s a review of one of the performances; Zombie Whitney will make her debut in the US soon. Big plus: she doesn’t have to worry about the Wuhan virus, just holograms of the Wuhan virus. Fans have been less than ecstatic, as much because of the quality of the image as the ickiness of the concept. Here’s part of one review:
Your phone camera can’t focus on her because it knows it’s not an actual person. At times, she resembles a Mortal Kombat 11 character. Backed by a real band and flesh-and-blood choreographed dancers – who have the double-edged-sword effect of adding some dynamism to a show which can feel static while also emphasising how unreal the hologram looks in comparison– she disappears and re-materialises in different costumes and hairstyles Star Trek transporter-style, and performs during a storm during ‘Run To You’, seemingly sodden from the rain. Because it’s obviously a pre-recorded singing voice taken from live performances, there’s no spontaneity, no interaction, no sense of drama over whether she’ll hit the high note. …it’s often more interesting to watch how the crowd reacts to the hologram than what’s onstage. They clap after each song (which initially feels akin to saying “Thank you” to a self-service check-out)….Whitney always strove for perfection: this is the idealised Disney-version fans see in their mind’s misty eye, and some have even claimed that tonight has helped them wash away memories of her disastrous 2010 tour, where she appeared drug-ravaged and raddled. The atmosphere is that of a communal live album listening party meets mass raucous hen do.
In another review from across the pond, fans expressed doubts about the ethics of exhibiting the singer without her “consent.” But unlike the images of post mortem Carrie Fisher performing a film role she never actually performed, there’s no pretense with holographic singer that she’s really there or performing. Nobody’s fooled; it’s little different, if at all, from a videotape or film of an actual performance. Now, if Whitney’s image and voice were manipulated to make her sing “Baby’s Got Back” or have her get on all fours and squeal like a pig, thing she would never do and never did, that would cross the line just like putting James Dean in a 2020 film.
Houston’s estate, of course, is cashing in on this, because they own Whitney’s image. I see scant difference between exhibiting the Houston Hologram and John Wayne’s estate commissioning a statue.
Looking at it subjectively, while I wouldn’t want to see a dead performers I admired forced by technology to give performances they never gave in roles and films they never consented to do, I wouldn’t mind seeing a realistic approximation of what great singers looked like on stage. Show me Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, or Marcel Marceau in his prime, or Elvis, Danny Kaye, or the Beatles. I’ll know it’s not them, but it will still be a memorial to an actual performance, by artists who we will never see perform live again, and a bit more vivid, perhaps, than just a projection on a screen.
Sure: it is now necessary for living artists to make their desires clear, and to have those wishes respected, if they don’t want to tour for eternity in Hologram Hell. Frank Zappa’s kids have Dead Dad on tour. The theater, which holds 1,800 people, was nearly sold out on opening night. Apparently Zappa’s hologram does some funky things like turning into a mass of dental floss at one point, but I assume Frank would love that.
Base Hologram started out by securing rights to produce performing holograms of Maria Callas and Roy Orbison. Orbison’s estate, which is controlled by his three sons, was pleased with the deal. A 58-date Orbison-Buddy Holly hologram tour began in San Francisco in September. Concert promoter Peter Shapiro is not negative about the trend, and what he assumes is coming. He told the New York Times,
“Look at who’s gone, just in the last couple of years: Bowie, Prince, Petty. Now look who’s still going but who’s not going to be here in 10 years, probably, at least not touring: the Stones, the Who, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Billy Joel, Elton John, McCartney, Springsteen. That is the base not just of classic rock but of the live-music touring business.”
These are unique talents that future generations should have an opportunity to see. Unlike the manufactured and manipulated fake film performances where dead artists are made to do and say things they never agreed to or had control over, I don’t see what the harm is, other than some slippery lope concerns that I wrote about here.
I don’t even think it’s icky.